|Mark Levinson No. 40 AV Preamplifier|
|Home Theater Preamplifiers AV Preamps|
|Written by Jerry Del Colliano|
|Sunday, 01 June 2003|
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The Music on the No. 40
Starting with traditional 16-bit CDs being played on a Meridian 800 CD/DVD-V/DVD-Audio player, I went to some world-class soul from the title track of Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland (MCA). I have heard this record thousands of times, but not until I listened to it on the Meridian 800/No. 40 combo did I notice that as “Electric Ladyland” begins, you can actually hear the old-school analog effects cycle along with the drum beat before Jimi’s guitar starts in.
It was on the track “Rainy Day, Dream Away” that I started to appreciate the magnitude of the upgrade to the No. 40 from my former reference standard, the Proceed AVP. Now the AVP has been upgraded to an AVP2 recently, which was major, but it still ain’t no No. 40 and this Hendrix track was solid proof. At low levels, you can hear the young Steve Winwood’s electric organ bubble over with bluesy soul. The sax beams forward, more like a musical instrument and less like a stereo system. Jimi’s voice, when switched over to Pro-Logic II + THX, took on an added height and was centered with rock-solid stability. Some purists are switching over to listening to their stereo material in matrix surround, thanks to Pro Logic II. I must admit, with the right material, it isn’t bad. With serious processing power in the No. 40, it doesn’t resemble the shrill, lifeless music effects (hall, church, etc.) of AV preamps from years ago.
The next 16-bit CD up for audition was Prince’s Purple Rain (Warner Brothers) for the tune “The Beautiful Ones.” On the No. 40, “The Beautiful Ones” sounded more three-dimensional, but all of the advanced DACs and processors couldn’t smooth out the bright cymbals and fatiguing snares. The wimpy bass never came to life with the improved gear. However, Prince’s guitar solo halfway through the track had a depth and energy that was as good as I have ever heard it.
Moving back in time to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (EMI) “When I’m Sixty-Four,” the normally cloudy-sounding track cleared up like a pimply-faced kid mainlining Accutane on an IV. I was knocked out by the decay on the bell that rings before the start of the second verse. The whole Sgt. Pepper’s record sounded more like musical instruments playing live and less like a reproduction. Any music fan could hear and appreciate the differences.
I transitioned over to SACDs with my relatively cost-effective Sony SCD-555 changer (about $700) as source running into my No. 40. I had my Meridian 800 hooked up, with both analog (5.1 for DVD-Audio and Movies) and digital out for comparison’s sake. My SACD player was hooked up via 5.1 analog inputs, which showed the No. 40’s effects on lesser DACs from the SACD player. Ultimately, the No. 40 upconverts and scales the analog inputs to 24-96 (or higher frequency, in some cases), but lesser DACs going out remain lesser DACs.
Putting the DAC issue aside, I was able to get some great sound from the newest SACD releases from Universal Music Group (Verve), specifically the Brazilian jazz classic Getz and Gilberto. This record set the standard for the genre of Brazilian jazz and has long been one of my reference audio CDs for its stellar recording and suave style. The SACD version was eminently smoother than the 16-bit CD coming in digitally from a very well-built Marantz DVD-Audio player source. On the SACD, you notice the subtle differences of the fingering of the chords as the tune saunters along. The recording sounds dated in terms of the hard panning left and right for imaging, but the overall musicality is as good as much of what you’ll hear from the best recordings of today. Ultimately, every second of Getz and Gilberto is brilliant, and on the SACD into the No. 40, it is like heroin for your ears. Once you get a shot of it, you keep coming back.
Switching over to DVD-Audio, I fired up another classic from the late 1950s, Art Pepper Meets The Rhythm Section. This is a Japanese DVD-Audio disc that is pretty much unavailable in the U.S., but it is worth making the effort to find overseas it because it is scary good, even in stereo. I paid $60 for the DVD-Audio disc, plus shipping, and would have paid more now that I have had the chance to hear it on my system. After listening to this album on the No. 40, fed from the Meridian 800, I can say I have never heard a musical event sound this amazing unless I was out at a live performance or sitting in on a studio session. The presence was disgustingly good, with the kind of musical reality and presence that makes you want to turn up the volume more and more, yet the system never gives out. The bass on the CD from a different source sounds puny in comparison to what’s on this DVD-Audio title. Red Garland’s first piano solo sounds so palpable that you’d argue you could tell exactly where on the keys he was voicing the notes and chords. Best of all is Pepper’s alto sax, which beams far in front of my Wilson WATT Puppy V6.0’s in ways you will only hear with the center channel on. And this was just stereo.
To get all of the speakers going in high-resolution surround, I fired up my favorite DVD-Audio title that’s been released so far, Yes’ Fragile (Rhino). On the progressive rock classic “Roundabout,” you get to hear a no-holds-barred free-for-all from a band that can really play. Jon Anderson’s voice projects strongly from the center speaker, while sharing the spotlight with bassist Chris Squire on the right side of the soundstage and guitarist Steve Howe on the left. Add in virtuoso rock keyboardist Rick Wakeman and you have a musical onslaught that goes from zero to 60 in a hurry. As the tune develops, runs from Wakeman and Howe (using both electric and acoustic guitars) move from front to back and from left to right, creating a 360-degree musical experience that makes one wonder why all records don’t sound this good. The only level for this tune is loud and the No. 40 sets things up perfectly for a tight, resolute experience that never gives out. When the track is over in about seven minutes, you need to catch your breath.
The Movies on the No. 40
I was obsessed with high-resolution audio playback during the first few weeks that I had my No. 40. I searched for SACDs and DVD-Audio titles like an audio freak. When I got my Meridian 800, I didn’t have enough analog inputs to connect it for a few weeks while I was using a different DVD-Audio player, so I hooked it up digitally. What I saw in terms of video quality though the No. 40 was stunning. Faults I was blaming on my Madrigal Imaging D-ILA projector cleared up, which prompted me to watch more movies.
The most fun I had was with “Zoolander” (Paramount Home Entertainment). Early in the film, as Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) is looking for moral support from his very gay male model clique, the posse enthusiastically suggests that the solution to Derek’s problems will be obtaining Orange Mocha Frappaccinos. Driving through streets of Manhattan, the motley crew of pretty boys hang from an older, top-down Jeep while ridiculously jamming out to Wham’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go.” I was laughing so hard the first two times I watched the scene that I didn’t notice how well the No. 40 did with upconverting the audio from the Meridian 800 via its analog inputs. It sounded pretty darn good on a careful listen. Once the boys get their Starbucks, Derek is distracted by a huge billboard featuring his rival Hansel (Owen Wilson). In the meantime, his pals are frolicking at the gas station – splashing water on each other. Upon careful listening you can hear them plunk the washers into the buckets and then spraying water from left to right and or right left. Within seconds the boys graduate from splashing water to playfully dousing themselves with gallons of unleaded fuel. Thoughtlessly, one of the gorgeous but mentally challenged male models lights up a cigarette and blows everyone but Derek to bits. Who knows how the explosion sounds – you’re laughing too hard to hear it.
I was impressed with the No. 40’s ability to resolve more subtle details at lower levels. In “Jackie Brown” (Miramax Home Entertainment), bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster) stops by his new client Jackie’s (Pam Grier) home to retrieve the handgun that she swiped from the glove box of his car when he was driving her home from a stint in jail for smuggling $50,000 cash and two ounces of blow. The scene was shot in the morning and as Jackie pours a cup of black coffee, she asks Max if he wants to listen to some music. He awkwardly agrees, being a very white man in a beautiful black woman’s apartment. She sets down an LP of The Delfonics “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time).” Although this Philly-soul standard is never played that loudly in the film, you can hear the cracks and pops of the record while hanging onto the very carefully crafted dialogue. The content and the way the LP sounds, paired with the resolute dialogue, provides the kind of subtle details that add up to the total suspension of disbelief that one can achieve while watching a movie on the Mark Levinson No. 40.